LAKEWOOD RANCH -- Some came with prosthetics and some arrived in wheelchairs, following severe war injuries that involved loss of legs and almost complete paralysis while serving in the military in Afghanistan and as long ago as Vietnam. But that didn't deter these strong-of-spirit veterans from enjoying a sunny Friday morning of sport clay shooting at the Ancient Oak Gun Club in Lakewood Ranch.
Participants from active duty military to veterans, business colleagues, family, friends and student volunteers from Sarasota, Bradenton and Tampa Bay all turned out Friday to enthusiastically support Florida's First Annual Fun Run, a fundraiser dedicated to helping injured war veterans rehabilitate, recover, and assim
ilate into civilian life.
"It's a chamber day," said Dave Pfeiffer, who along with his business associate, friend, a fellow clay shooter, Peter Skokos, both former military, conceived the idea for the fundraiser and were pleased with the large turnout and nice weather.
Over $15,000 was raised, according to the organizers, which will be donated to Operation Second Chance and No Person Left Behind, two national organizations that help wounded and injured military from all branches and all wars, and their families, with emergency financial assistance from mortgage and rent payments to sponsoring outings and sporting retreats away from the hospital. A local, Tampa-based nonprofit, Black Dagger, that brought some veterans down to enjoy the day also benefitted from the event.
"There's enough programs out there that these young kids coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan won't be homeless. They need jobs and they need homes, and this support can help them," said Ben Knisely, a retired Army Colonel who was shot down flying a medical helicopter in Vietnam and now serves on the board of Operation Second Chance.
About 120 people took part in the all-morning clay shoot, which is often described as "golf with a shotgun." The shoot was laid out on three different courses where teams of four, including about 20 disabled vets, traveled in golf carts to each station, using shotguns to fire at sport clays resembling small frisbees that simulate birds.
Rex Tharp traveled from Maryland, where he has spent just over two years in Walter Reed Hospital recovering from a severe knee injury due to an explosive device that went off while he was on foot patrol in a village on the outskirts of Kandahar, Afghanistan, in 2011. Among the many injuries that he sustained, his right leg was amputated above his knee, and he now walks with a prosthetic limb. This was Tharp's second outing sponsored by Operation Second Chance while he awaits release from the hospital and a permanent life at home in Indiana.
"I like shooting, but it's great just getting out of the hospital and having a good time. This is kind of like a small vacation, and it really helps," said the 23-year-old Tharp, who received a Purple Heart for his Army wounds.
For Nathan Nelson, a 30-year-old former Air Force intelligence officer from Tampa, the fun shoot was about camaraderie rather than the sport. Nelson is wheelchair-bound and barely has the use of his hands. He took a close hit from a rocket on his third deployment to Afghanistan. He said he was grateful to the Black Dagger organization that brought him to the event.
"I can't shoot a gun but it's at least fun to watch and I'll be out there checking it out,' he said.
Paralyzed Vietnam veteran Clark Tamney, who also was a guest of Black Dagger, had no trouble getting into the shoot and firing one of the first rounds. The veteran, who served in the jungles of Vietnam for almost 10 years, was debilitated by Agent Orange, a defoliant used in guerilla warfare. "There are some organizations that say they'll help but end up ignoring the vets. Black Dagger is No. 1 in my book," Tamney said while holding his shotgun.
Organizer Skokos is already thinking about next year's Florida Fun Shoot because of the success of this year's event. He intends to hold it in February when the weather is cooler and the love bugs won't be around.
Kathryn Moschella, Lakewood Ranch reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7010. Follow her on Twitter @MoschellaHerald.com.